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Children's cognitive developmental stage, coping mechanisms, and dealing with stress - how important are all these to consider in the context of sleep?

Understanding a child’s emotions and how they affect sleep involves considering their current cognitive developmental stage, the coping mechanisms they use, and how they deal with stress. Here’s an in-depth look at each of these aspects first, to help explain it further:

Cognitive Developmental Stages

Eminent Swiss Psychologist Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development (see more here) outlines four stages:

Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 years)

• Emotions: Basic emotions such as joy, anger, sadness, and fear.

• Understanding: Limited to immediate experiences; lack of object permanence.

•. Coping Mechanisms: Relies on caregivers for comfort; self-soothing behaviours like thumb-sucking.

Preoperational Stage (2-7 years)

• Emotions: More complex emotions like jealousy and pride emerge.

• Understanding: Egocentric thinking; beginning of symbolic thinking.

• Coping Mechanisms: Use of play and imagination to process emotions; simple verbal expressions.

Concrete Operational Stage (7-11 years)

• Emotions: Better understanding and articulation of emotions; empathy develops.

• Understanding: Logical thinking about concrete events; grasping the concept of conservation.

•. Coping Mechanisms: Problem-solving and seeking social support from peers and adults.

Formal Operational Stage (11+ years)

• Emotions: More nuanced emotional experiences and introspection.

• Understanding: Abstract thinking and hypothesis testing.

• Coping Mechanisms: Advanced strategies such as cognitive reappraisal and planning.

Coping Mechanisms

Children develop various coping mechanisms to manage emotions and stress. These can be categorised as:

Problem-Focused Coping

• Seeking information

• Developing plans to solve problems

• Taking action to change the situation

Emotion-Focused Coping

• Seeking emotional support

• Engaging in distracting activities (e.g., playing)

• Reappraising the situation to view it more positively

Avoidance Coping

• Denying the problem

• Withdrawing from social interactions

• Using fantasy or escapism

Dealing with Stress

Children’s ability to deal with stress evolves with their cognitive development and is influenced by their environment, including family dynamics, school, and peer interactions.

Parental Support

• This is a key factor in how children learn to manage stress.

•. Consistent, responsive parenting provides a secure base for exploring and understanding emotions.

Emotional Literacy

• Teaching children to recognise and label their emotions helps in managing stress.

• Activities like reading books about emotions, role-playing, and discussing feelings can enhance emotional literacy.

Healthy Routines

• Regular sleep, balanced nutrition, and physical activity contribute to better emotional regulation and stress management.

Social Skills

• Developing social skills helps children seek support and navigate social challenges effectively.

• Encourage activities that promote teamwork and empathy.

Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques

• Practices such as deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation can be effective in reducing stress.

Practical strategies for supporting children emotionally

Create a safe environment - ensure children feel safe to express their emotions without judgment. Use age-appropriate language to discuss feelings.

Model healthy coping - demonstrate positive coping strategies through your own behaviour and share your own experiences with handling stress, in a child-friendly way.

Encourage problem-solving - guide children through problem-solving steps to empower them to come up with their own solutions.

Foster connections - promote strong, supportive relationships with family, friends, and community members to provide opportunities for positive social interactions.

Seek professional help when needed - recognise when a child’s stress or emotional difficulties require professional intervention and seek to support your child’s well-being by talking to teachers and health professionals about how they can help.

Understanding these components can help caregivers, educators, and healthcare professionals support children’s emotional development and equip them with the tools to manage stress effectively throughout their lives which helps them become resilient, emotionally intelligent adults.

How emotions affect sleep

Children’s emotions can significantly impact their sleep in various ways:

Anxiety and Stress

High levels of anxiety or stress can lead to difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep. Children may experience racing thoughts, nightmares, or night terrors, disrupting their sleep patterns.


Positive emotions like excitement, whether from a special event or anticipation of something enjoyable, can also interfere with sleep. Children may find it hard to settle down and fall asleep quickly.


Fear, whether from a real source or imagined, can lead to sleep avoidance, frequent awakenings, or difficulty returning to sleep. This is common with fears of the dark or fear of separation from parents.


Emotions related to sadness or depression can either lead to excessive sleep or insomnia. Changes in sleep patterns are often seen in children experiencing grief or significant changes in their lives.

Anger and Frustration

Intense feelings of anger or frustration can cause restlessness and difficulties in falling asleep. The inability to resolve these emotions before bedtime can lead to poor sleep quality.


Overall, emotional regulation plays a crucial role in ensuring children get adequate and restful sleep. Helping children develop healthy coping mechanisms for their emotions can positively affect their sleep patterns and overall well-being. Most often, I find, when working with older children and teens, underlying anxiety is the main cause of sleep issues and so alongside fostering healthy sleep habits and incorporating a regular bedtime routine, addressing these issues, perhaps with support from a professional, can have a huge impact. Alongside this, equipping our children and young people with the tools to manage their emotions, anxieties and stress will all positively impact their sleep.

Conversely, lack of sleep can also exacerbate emotional issues, the ability to regulate, and can lead to frustrations and short fuses. If you're finding your child is often like this, it is worth looking at whether they are getting enough sleep in the first instance, and taking steps to work on sleep hygiene and bedtimes.

For more information or support, please do get in touch here! At Everything Birth Baby Sleep we cover sleep from babies all the way to teenagers!

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